Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Dear Mr Obama

This is my first letter to you. I have to confess, I didn't much care when you won the election. It may have been history in the making but it was American history and I live too far away to care. I didn't wear Obama T-shirts. I didn't read the book. I didn't buy the 'Change'. Call me cynical. Goes with the job description.

But today, I feel compelled to write to you. You're having a problem with oil spills. I don't know how you're going to deal with it but you've been promising compensation and not just 'nickel and dime' stuff. Which is good. By and large, the US seems to take accidents, the disabling of human beings and monetary compensation pretty seriously.

I also read about some plans to compensate veterans, those who worked to test nuclear weapons. It says here that the compensation could be pretty generous.

But your people have always fought for proper compensation and establishment of liability. One of your worst disasters was the Texas City Disaster of 1947, in which 581 people died. I don't need to tell you why etc. But compensation claims were filed against the USA and - I'm wiki-quoting here - "the district court found the United States responsible for a litany of negligent acts of omission and commission by 168 named agencies and their representatives in the manufacture, packaging, and labeling of ammonium nitrate, further compounded by errors in transport, storage, loading, fire prevention, and fire suppression, all of which led to the explosions and the subsequent carnage. On June 10, 1952, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this decision, finding that the United States maintained the right to exercise its own "discretion" in vital national matters. The Supreme Court affirmed that decision."

But, "Congress acted to provide some compensation after the courts refused to do so... When the last claim had been processed in 1957, 1,394 awards, totaling nearly $17,000,000, had been made."

Are you counting the zeroes, Mr Obama? That was the year 1957.

Before that, when the South Fork dam burst in 1889, "victims suffered a series of legal defeats in their attempt to recover damages from the dam's owners. Public indignation at that failure prompted a major development in American law—state courts' move from a fault-based regime to strict liability."

More recently, the 2008 Chatsworth train collision caused 25 deaths. Wikipedia tells me "Lawyers quickly began filing claims against Metrolink, and in total, they are expected to exceed a US$200 million liability limit set in 1997... An attorney representing two of the victims agreed, saying payouts could range from $5 million to $10 million per death or serious injury."

You people are talking $5 million per death. And here, in my country, we are talking 55 cents per death.

I recognize that this is a failure of our justice system. Ours, not yours. But I pose to you a moral question. Is it okay to shield a wanted man in a case of this kind? Warren Anderson might be a US citizen. But we're talking over 22,000 lost lives. Enough zeroes, Mr Obama, what do you say?

It's a mess you've inherited, I know. But what would your legal stand be if your daughters, 26 years later, were giving birth to deformed kids, all because Anderson wanted to save a few dollars ($37.68 to be precise, on one critical process)? What would you have done with blinded babies?

Could it be that you are too busy to know that your government has not lifted a finger to extradite a certain Mr Warren Anderson even though there's a new you, heading a government of 'change'.

Take a look at this: "On 20th July official sources from the government of India announced that the May 2003 extradition request had been turned down on “technical grounds”. A month later the State Minister for External Affairs, E. Ahmed, claimed the request had been rejected because it failed to satisfy some clauses of the India-US extradition treaty... Warren bhai, who first ignored an Interpol summons to the Bhopal courts some sixteen years ago is, as ever, as silent as the gas cloud released from the factory that a ‘high standard of evidence’ shows the company he ran was at such pains to control. We examine some of the evidence and speculate on how it can be that the world’s most infamous corporate accused is still getting away with culpable homicide…"

And yes, culpable homicide it is.

"After Ashraf’s death (from a chemical poisoning accident at the factory), Union Carbide management sent a team of US engineers to conduct a ‘business confidential’ safety audit. The May 1982 report identified 61 hazards, 30 of them major and 11 in the dangerous phosgene/MIC unit. Safety measures were improved at Carbide’s MIC plant in West Virginia, but not in Bhopal, where, incredibly, Carbide responded to the death of Ashraf Khan by intensifying its cost-cutting in the most dangerous areas of the plant."

Do I need to spell it out for you, Mr Obama? Just read the bold lettering if you are short on time. US engineers conduct a safety audit. They see a dangerous situation at their chemical factory. They go about making arrangements to cut risks to American lives. They go about increasing the risk to Indian lives.

Should we just spell it out now, Mr Obama. Its called racism. R-A-C-I-S-M.

Your guys - American citizens whom your government is unwilling to arrest and hand over to my country's law system - knew what they were doing. And I want them punished, sir. Ideally, with imprisonment. But most certainly with a big, fat fine. Not nickels and dimes, sir.

Now look at this: "Dow set aside $2.2 billion to meet Carbide asbestos liabililities in the US. However it bluntly refuses to accept Carbide’s liabilities in Bhopal – or even admit that they exist."

You know, there is a famous Hindi film dialogue that I quote often. Roughly translated, it is this question: Is your blood, blood, and our blood water?

So Mr Promised Change, how much my life is worth? Is it worth as much as an American life? White, brown, black, whatever. You choose. Decide how much criminal culpability can be established, and what you - as the first representative of the the USA to the rest of the world - should do about this mess. Let Anderson negotiate his own way to freedom if he can. Let him decide how much his freedom is worth. Don't let him decide how much poor Indians are worth. Dow has said they would prefer to stand trial in India, after all. Send the officials over. They've a lot to answer for, and whole lot to pay for.

Warm regards


P.S. Separately, would you consider passing a law that forbids Dow/Union Carbide from leaving the USA? A kind of business internment? In the interest of world peace, security and human rights, it would be helpful if those guys were forbidden from doing business in developing countries. While you're at it, you could intern Monsanto too. We've got enough sh*t to deal with and would appreciate not having to deal with your sh*t. We can't afford it. If you can, you keep it.


Bhagwad Jal Park said...

On the same note, the US congress is raising the liability cap for oil spills from just $75 Million to $10 Billion.

In the same breath, we in India are being asked to pass a nuclear liability bill capping the payout to just $458 million. That's than 20 times less than an oil spill liability.

And no one has even died in the Gulf oil spill yet (apart from the actual explosion where 11 people were killed)!

It's more than just racism here. Our own government doesn't value our people's lives. Instead of laughing it off, they're "thinking about it".

It'll take time to change this mentality in ourselves first. How can we expect the world to take Indian lives seriously when Indians themselves do not?

But I'm not really complaining overall. We have a long way to go, and are still a young country. The evolution of a nation isn't a matter of a generation or two after all.

Chand Narayan said...

I like Obama, and I appreciate his journey... from Memories of my Father to The Audacity of Hope... I understand what he's trying to do.

I also loved this note. Is there a way to get it across to Obama? I'm sure he would understand it... more so as he was personally involved in the 'asbestos in urban housing' case...

Vishnu Gupta said...

I have to point out that the 55 cents per death part is false. Dow payed a total of $470 million as damages. That amounts to more than $20000(about 10 lakh rupees) per victim. Dow bulit a hospital and maintained it out of it's pockets for 8 years.Guess accuracy and cross checking doesn't go with your job description.

Annie Zaidi said...

bhagwad: I agree. The primary fault lies with us. But I also wish the US were not so blind to the injustices its businesspeople commit internationally. A criminal is a criminal no matter where the crime is committed.
chand: No idea. This is the only way I know of getting through to powerful presidents.
vishnu gupta: look at the links. the 55 cent figure is correct in the current context. it comes as part of the criminal proceedings award. and carbide had been protected against civil liability in any case. so in effect, the courts are punishing the company executives for destroying all those lives, but the punishment in monetary terms is 55 cents a head.
you must read this:
here is something about the 1989 settlement:

Vishesh said...

Not to forget the noble peace prize!

It is disgusting. The world can put pressure if not through diplomatic channels than through the media..but no one seems to care..

Unknown said...

While I agree with you, and the fact that it's a cause that calls for us to be passionate, but it doesn't behoove us to swear at a man like Barack who himself has a track record of being passionate about causes?

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